STILL PRESENT PASTS and IF NOT NOW WHEN / Last year, during a conference on Asian American Studies held in Honolulu, University of Hawai’i law professor and activist Mari Matusda was reviewing the catalog of a touring exhibition arranged by longtime friend and noted Boston College professor Ramsey Liem. The show, Still Present Pasts, is a reflection on the meaning and legacy of the Korean War. It has been shown at nine cities in the United States and Asia to wide acclaim.
Matsuda describes her reaction this way:
“The Korean War happens. Millions of people die, most of them Korean civilians. Nobody ever talks about it, because you can’t have an American triumphalist story about Korea. So it’s hidden, and yet there are so many people in Hawaii who have been affected by this. Basically, the war is the reason for the Korean diaspora.”
“I thought, ‘This is stunning. Why has it never been in Hawaii?’”
Beginning this weekend, it will be. With her colleagues in the nascent local art activist group CMA Hawaii, Matsuda arranged for Still Present Pasts to be presented at Bishop Museum through Sept. 12.
The exhibition blends oral histories with installation artwork by Korean American artists, documentary film, archival photography and a deep historical narrative about the impact and legacy of the war.
“There are gigantic installations people walk on, puzzle pieces where visitors are encouraged to leave their own stories,” Matsuda says. “The idea is to gently open the door for people to start talking about things they’ve never talked about before. When people go in intergenerational groups, many say that this is the first time they have talked about the war.”
That silence can be pervasive, and the small team at CMA wanted to do something bold to get Honolulu’s attention. The result–a companion exhibition called If Not Now When. Curator Trisha Lagaso Goldberg put out a call for Hawaii artists to submit work in the area of “peace, justice, and the heritage of non-violent resistance,” with an eye toward drawing in and motivating a new generation of artists and activitists.
Of the 40-plus artists in the show, most–35 at last count–are from Hawaii, but CMA’s call went wider than Lagaso Goldberg imagined. “It was not my intention,” she says, “to cast the net so far and wide, but it goes to show you how powerful social networking is.” She says work came in from across the United States and Asia.
The companion show’s floor space will take up about one-third of the overall exhibit. Lagaso-Goldberg says the juxtaposition promises to be powerful. “It’s evident that the Korean War is a very sensitive issue, a highly charged one in the local Korean community. For the local piece, the support we’ve received has been overwhelming.”
A veteran curator and gallery manager, Lagaso Goldberg says the work nevertheless stretched her.
“Peace is such a simple message, but it turns out to be quite complex, and not always easy to grab hold of.”
The whole peace piece gets rolling Saturday with an all-ages celebration featuring Paula Fuga, Kings of Spade, Youth Speaks Hawaii and other local acts, plus Korean American hip-hop artists Denizen Kane and Skim.